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Are brand-customer relationships real relationships?

By Jenny Madorsky, Senior Vice President, General Manager

January 11, 2023 | 7 min read

What's the true nature of a relationship – and can a brand really be in one? Creative consultancy Long Dash’s senior vice president Jenny Madorsky explains.

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Humans are social creatures. What role can brands play in helping to foster deeper connections between people? / Adobe Stock

When working with clients, we often find ourselves in a conversation about how brands can build better relationships with their audiences, users, consumers; choose your favorite word for people who interact with the brand. There’s no shortage of viewpoints on this topic; some argue that building your brand as a relationship is a winning strategy. But what does “relationship” actually mean in this context? When we think about our relationships with our colleagues, friends, or family, it feels different from what we’re talking about in these conversations about brands. “Relationship” has become a word that’s repeated so often in business that it has lost its meaning. So let’s get back to basics.

I consulted Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions and former science advisor to Congress, to understand what a relationship really is, on a neurological level. “A relationship clinically is a safe and secure connection – one that’s defined by consistency and predictability,” Rheem says.

“If we look at the literature and couples therapy, the questions that the limbic system (the part of the brain that determines our felt sense of safety) is asking of the partner are: ‘Are you there for me? Can I count on you? Do you have my back?’ If the answers are ‘yes,’ the limbic system would say: ‘get closer to this person.’”

When asked whether brands can form relationships like these with people, Rheem explains, “I’m not sure that we could find data that would empirically validate that. There has to be some reciprocity for a relationship to occur in the true clinical sense of it.”

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The role that brands can play

With the neurological definition of a relationship in mind, it becomes clear that truly fulfilling relationships are only possible between people, not between a person and the abstract concept of a brand. So should we abandon the idea of building brands as relationships? Not necessarily. Relationships are extremely important to our collective well-being – especially in what has been described as our modern ‘loneliness epidemic’ – and brands can play a role in solving this issue.

Rheem argues that though brands may not form true relationships, they can still nurture a sense of safety. “The limbic system in the brain is vigilant for potential threats,” says Rheem. “So when brands convey, for example, a consistent and predictable experience, we feel safer with that brand and we are more likely to affiliate with it.”

Human beings, Rheem explains, have evolved to seek out social connection and a sense of belonging. “The leading criteria for success and survival for early Homo sapiens was being a part of a clan or tribe and, as a result of that imperative, we are hardwired at birth to be in a group. Since our survival depended on staying in the group, we craved feedback. This is why we all wake up every morning subconsciously in search of validation. Do you see me? Do you know and appreciate me? Do you have a sense of who I am and my value?

“That connection – simply being part of something – still drives most human behavior. When you wear a product or identify with a brand, you signal to people: ‘I’m a part of this group.’ Just think about how strongly many people associate with being either an iPhone or an Android user. We feel validated simply by our affiliation with it and with other members of that ‘tribe.’”

Build relationships between people, not brands

Imagine if brand leaders focused less on building tenuous “relationships” between brands and people, and instead focused on how their brands could use their connecting power to support, encourage and enhance relationships between people.

Glossier has successfully used this strategy to encourage conversation, connection, and mutual knowledge-sharing among its consumers on platforms like Slack, Reddit and in-person events. As a business, Glossier is rewarded with user-generated content (UGC) – on Instagram, UGC makes up 33% of Glossier’s in-feed posts and almost half, 42%, of Glossier’s TikTok posts – and sales growing nearly 300% in previous years. Where Glossier missed the mark, however, is giving relationships between business leaders and employees less attention and care than they did to those within their consumer community.

Salesforce has also long taken a similar approach, resulting in tremendous growth. Though Salesforce traditionally sells B2B software, it’s taken considerable care to nurture communities of developers, administrators, and business leaders through training initiatives like Trailhead and events like Dreamforce, forming entire career paths around its suite of tools. Trailblazers, as its community members are called, look forward to Dreamforce each year not only to find out about new product features, but also to connect with, learn from, and validate one another.

So the next time we find ourselves in a conversation about how brands can build better relationships, let’s pause to unpack exactly what we mean. If relationships are really the goal, brands would be better served by helping to build stronger relationships between people. Let’s talk about brands as instigators, facilitators, and enhancers of relationships – not brands as relationships themselves.

Jenny Madorsky is the senior vice president and general manager of creative consultancy Long Dash. For more, sign up for The Drum’s daily US newsletter here.

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